Three Theories of Cognitive Development

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Three Theories of Cognitive Development The Swiss psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is well-known for his work towards the cognitive sciences. Arguably one of his most important contributions involves his theory of cognitive development. In this theory, thinking progresses through four distinct stages between infancy and adulthood. Similar in scope to Piaget’s theory is Information Processing, in which human thinking is based on both mental hardware and mental software (Kail, Cavanaugh). A final theory on cognitive development was established by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934).

Vygotsky proposed that development is a collaborative effort between child and partner. While these three theories attempt to explain a similar topic in different manners, each can be considered an important aspect to cognitive development in infancy and early childhood. Through analyzing and comparing these theories, scientists are able to better understand how child development occurs and the process it takes in creating a functional human being. Piaget’s Theory Children are naturally curious: this is the claim Piaget proposed when explaining that children of all ages create theories about how the world around them works.

They accomplish this through the use of “schemes,” referring to mental structures that organize information and regulate behavior. Infants group objects based on the actions they can perform on them. Later in development, schemes become based on functional or conceptual relationships, not action. This means that schemes of related objects, events, and ideas are present throughout development (Kail, Cavanaugh). Schemes change constantly, adapting to children’s experiences. Intellectual adaptation involves two key processes that work together: assimilation and accommodation.

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Assimilation is the process of taking in new information into previously existing schemes. Accommodation involves altering existing schemes in light of new information. Assimilation and accommodation are usually in equilibrium. But when disequilibrium occurs, children reorganize their schemes to return to a state of equilibrium, a process Piaget called “equilibration. ” According to Piaget, revolutionary changes in thought occur three times over the life p, which are divided into four stages. Sensorimotor period (0-2 years): Infants adapt and explore their environment. Reflexes are first modified by experience.

At 8 months, intentional behavior occurs. Soon, infants become active experimenters, and repeat actions with different objects for the purpose of seeing what will happen. An important aspect of the first stage is object permanence- the understanding that objects exist even if they cannot be seen. Not until at about 18 months do infants have a full understanding of object permanence. Soon after, the onset of symbols, including words and gestures, become apparent. Preoperational thinking (2-7 years): Children do not understand others’ different ideas and emotions (egocentrism). They also have trouble focusing on multiple features.

A child in the preoperational stage has a narrowly focused type of thought (a term Piaget called centration). For example, in what is known as a conservation problem, children tend to focus on only one aspect of the problem. In conservation of length, they concentrate on the fact that, after the transformation, the end of one stick is farther to the right than the end of the other, when in fact each stick is similar in length. Concrete operational period (7-11 years): This stage is characterized by the appropriate use of logic. A child is able to sort objects according to its size, shape, etc.

Also, children will now take into account multiple aspects of a problem. For example, a child will no longer perceive a wide and short cup to contain more liquid than a normal, tall cup. Egocentrism begins to disappear: the child can now view things from another’s perspective (even though that person may be wrong). Formal operational period (11 years and up): Individuals move beyond concrete experiences and begin to think more abstractly, reason logically, and draw conclusions from information available. Also changing is the way an adolescent thinks about social matters.

The future is beginning to be thought of in relation to what he or she can become. Information Processing In this view, human thinking is based on mental hardware (allows the mind to operate) and mental software (basis for performing particular tasks). There are several different aspects to this theory. Learning and cognitive development can happen through habituation, classical and operant conditioning, and imitation. Habituation is the diminished response to a stimulus as it becomes more familiar. Constantly responding to insignificant stimuli is wasteful, so habituation keeps infants from devoting too much energy to non-important events.

In classical conditioning, a stimulus elicits a response that was originally produced by another stimulus. No new behaviors are learned, but an association is developed (Huitt, W. and Hummel, J). For example, a toddler may frown when he hears water running in the bathroom because he realizes that it is time for a bath. Operant conditioning emphasizes reward and punishment. This helps children form expectations about what will happen in their environment. Imitation is important in older children and adolescents. This process entails a “watch and learn” kind of approach.

A boy can learn how to play basketball by watching a professional athlete, and an infant may imitate an adult waving her finger back and forth. A special kind of memory, “autobiographical memory,” emerges in the preschool years. These are memories of significant events and experiences in one’s own life. Infants have basic memory skills that enable them to remember past events. In addition to these skills are the language skills and sense of self obtained during the preschool years. Vygotsky’s Theory Lev Vygotsky incorporated the role that society and culture have on an individual throughout cognitive development.

According to Vygostky, children rarely grow cognitively by themselves; they learn and progress when they have others by their side. This is contrasting to Piaget’s theory and Information Processing, where the individual growth takes place mostly alone. In his theory, Vygotsky developed the idea of the zone of proximal development. This refers to the “zone” between the level of performance a child can achieve when working independently and a higher level of performance that is possible when working under the guidance of more skilled adults or peers.

This follows the idea that cognition develops first in a social setting and slowly comes under the child’s control. A factor that aids this shift is known as scaffolding. This is a style of teaching in which the teacher decides the amount of assistance given to match what the child actually needs. Scaffolding is based off the premise that children do not learn readily when they are constantly told what to do or when they are left to struggle through a problem. Finally, Vygotsky viewed private speech as an “intermediate step toward self-regulation of cognitive skills. Private speech can be defined as comments that are not intended for anyone else but the child to hear, and are designed to help children regulate their behavior. This theory holds that cognitive development is not characterized as a solitary undertaking, but a collaboration between expert and novice. Compare and Contrast All of these theories attempt to measure the biological and psychological changes apparent in child development. They look to categorize specific behaviors, and associate them with current stages in growth. However, each theory is different in that it looks for different behavior patterns.

Also, Piaget’s Theory and the Information Processing Theory can be grouped together due to the fact that they look at a child as an independent being, not cognitively dependent on its environment. However, Vygotsky views a child’s development as being reliable upon its surroundings (e. g. its peers, parents, teachers etc). Disputes These three theories are just that; theories. None of them have been scientifically proven and accepted by all scientists. Instead, they have formed the basis by which we conduct study and research of cognitive development today.

Theories will always be open to criticism and review, and Piaget’s theory has specifically been scrutinized by scientists and researchers. Some believe that Piaget underestimated the cognitive competence in infants and young children. A main theme of modern child development is that of an extremely competent infant. Also, many scientists have found that certain components of Piaget’s theory are not testable. For example, accommodation and assimilation prove to be too vague to test scientifically. In Vygosky’s Theory, some critics point out the overemphasizing of the role of language.

Also, his “emphasis on collaboration and guidance has potential pitfalls if facilitators are too helpful in some cases. An example of that would be an overbearing and controlling parent. ” Criticism is not meant to diminish the importance of these theories, but to foster more research in the field of cognitive development and improve our understanding of how children grow. Conclusion These three theories of cognitive development are meant to measure something that is physically not able to be measured. They take a look at how children behave, and attempt to classify each behavior accordingly.

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Three Theories of Cognitive Development. (2018, Sep 11). Retrieved from

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